Healthy Vending Machines? Yes, Says Board of Health!

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traditional vending machine full of not-so-nutritious snacks

On Thursday, April 21, the Board of Health of Seattle-King County (BOH) adopted a set of guidelines for getting healthier food choices into vending machines.  The guidelines are not binding on either the vending machine owners or those who contract with them, but are designed to set a path and give guidance and direction to both. King County Councilmembers Julia Patterson and Joe McDermott will propose implementing legislation that will adopt these guidelines as policy guidance for the County, and I and Councilmembers Clark and Licata will introduce companion legislation adopting them in the City.  Our hope is that other public, nonprofit, and private organizations will follow our lead, and that this will ultimately transform the vending machine industry.

Fruit vending machine (plastic wrap not ideal)

The vending machine industry is already moving towards providing healthy choices with strong encouragement from the national better nutrition campaign led by Michele Obama.  Companies like HealthyYou Vending and Fresh Healthy Vending are growing franchise models, and Business Week and MSNBC have taken notice of the trend.  Organizations like Seattle Schools and Seattle Parks and Recreation have adopted requirements for vending machines (the Seattle Parks requirements were one of the early implementation actions of my Local Food Action Initiative).  The City of New York and State of Massachusetts have both adopted measures seeking to promote healthy choices in vending machines. Our Board of Health model, however, is the most comprehensive proposal to date, and we are hoping that it not only furthers the trend in our area, but becomes a national model.  We are building on our precedent with the BOH requirements for posting calorie and nutrition information in restaurants, which became part of the health care reform legislation adopted by Congress last year.

Veggie vending machine

The vending machine guidelines adopted by the Board are based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, and identify healthy options for different food types (fruits, whole grains, etc.) rather than simply looking at fat, sugar, and sodium. The guidelines include a set of categories – “Healthiest”, “Healthier”, and “Limited” – and a sampling of the products that fit into each.  For example, in the vegetable category, “Healthiest” includes fresh or dehydrated vegetables or cup of soup with a quarter cup of vegetables; “Healthier” includes fresh or dehydrated vegetables with added salt, sugar, or fat and baked potato chips; “Limited” includes fried vegetables and regular chips. The guidelines recommend that each organization that contracts for vending machines go through a ‘best practices’ process to create an implementation plan that will:
  • At a minimum ensure that “Healthiest” and “Healthier” choices are available in vending machines;
  • Preferably make these choices the easy choices through pricing, marketing, and education;
  • Optimally work towards ultimately offering only “Healthiest” and “Healthier” food and beverages.
Our goal is to move towards a healthier population by increasing the opportunities for people to choose real food over faux food.  The Seattle Parks Department has had healthy vending machine guidelines in place since 2009, and has found that, after an initial period when sales from vending machines dropped slightly, people welcome the choice and sales strengthen.  This is one more part of the work of joining with the community to restore real food to its rightful place in our society. For more information on the King County Healthy Vending Guidelines, you can go to: